As a psychologist and executive leadership coach, my life’s work has been dedicated to helping people use psychological science to create a fulfilling work and personal life. Over the past several years however, I started to notice an alarming trend regarding today’s workforce: while the world of work is changing rapidly, we humans are not productively adapting alongside it.
Changes such as hyperconnectivity and globalization have created an always-on-and-always-connected culture that has fundamentally altered how we live and work, but unfortunately, most of us (and the organizations in which we work) are still clinging to outdated formulas and ideas of what it takes to be and remain successful in work and life.
Long before the onslaught of COVID-19, burnout was a rapidly progressing global epidemic of its own. In 2015, Stanford University researchers estimated that job burnout has been costs the US economy up to $190 billion each year.[i] In 2018, a Deloitte workplace burnout survey found that 77 percent of respondents have experienced burnout in their current job.[ii] In 2019, the World Health Organization included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon.[iii]
Living through 2020 and witnessing the massive levels of disruption that happened in its wake has made this pressing issue even more alarming. In fact, the International Committee of the Red Cross found in a global survey that 51% of adults perceive that COVID-19 negatively affected their mental health.[iv]
Perhaps the silver lining that may be found in this epidemic is that people are finally demanding more from their work: One of every two employees wants to see a greater focus on well-being at their company[v]. As well, leaders are beginning to realize that employee well-being is no longer a nice-to-have, rather, it’s a strategic imperative tied to real business outcomes. A 2021 Fortune/Deloitte CEO Survey has found that an overwhelming majority of CEOs (98%) agreed that employee mental health and well-being will continue to be a priority even after the pandemic is resolved[vi].
So how can we address this alarming burnout epidemic and the corresponding desires of employees, leaders, and organizations to enhance well-being? Through what I refer to as the 3 R’s of resilient cultures: Recognize, Respond, and Replenish.
Recognize: Know when you, your team, or your people are showing signs of burnout.
You cannot detect something if you’re not actively monitoring for it. Thanks to pioneering researcher Christina Maslach and her co-researchers, we know that burnout consists of three interrelated components:
- Exhaustion: Immense emotional, physical, and/or cognitive fatigue.
- Cynicism: Low levels of job engagement.
- Inefficacy: A lack of productivity and feelings of incompetence.
It is important that both people leaders and employees actively monitor for burnout. The sooner you can detect burnout, the more opportunity you have to course-correct early on.
Respond: Understand the six causes of burnout in order to effectively address it.
You may be surprised to learn that burnout isn’t simply a consequence of overworking to the point of exhaustion. For better or worse, too often burnout has been unnecessarily simplified in the mainstream. While overwork and exhaustion are part of what can happen with burnout, it is not the whole picture. Research has found that burnout comes from six distinct mismatches between people and their job:
- Work overload
- Perceived lack of control
- Insufficient reward
- Breakdown in community
- Lack of fairness
- Values misalignment
Through understanding which of the six areas is most impacting you, your people, and/or your organization, you can refine your approach to address this specific area (or areas) in order to respond most effectively. The more you are able to pinpoint the specific mismatch that is causing the most challenge, the more empowered you will be to strategically address and manage it.
Replenish: Build out a pro-resilience toolkit.
We are human beings, not machines. When we deny (or ask others to deny) our humanity for the sake of productivity, not only do we suffer, but our families, communities, and companies do too. In order to maintain our health, vitality, and well-being in our new world of work and life, we must actively work with (instead of against) our capacities as human beings. In my opinion, this is perhaps the most important R of the 3 R’s. A new world of work necessitates new ways to approach work; we need prevention, not reaction. This is why I’ve focused the majority of my book, The Burnout Fix, on providing readers with a set of pro-resilience mindsets, skills, and behaviors to sustain success in our new world of work. In the same way we workout to build muscles at the gym to stay fit or brush our teeth daily to ensure healthy hygiene, we must proactively work to foster a fixed set of core resilience capabilities to keep us stable and grounded while the world of work continues to evolve around us.
As we emerge from the aftermath of COVID-19 and eventually enter into the post-pandemic world, we need leaders, organizations, and individuals across all industries step up to ensure that as we work to to innovate, create new technologies, and address some of the world’s biggest problems, that people aren’t having to compromise their well-being in the process. Research shows that we can sustain our success while also doing great work in the world. In fact, when we have more resilience, we do better work. At the end of the day, vibrant workplaces require leaders to develop cultures that apply the most insightful lessons of psychological science to design an employee experience that inspires everyone to tap into their core resilience capabilities.
[i] Goh, Joel & Pfeffer, Jeffrey & Zenios, Stefanos. (2015). The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States. Management Science. 62.
[ii] Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ltd., “Deloitte Workplace Burnout Survey: Burnout Without Borders,” 2018, www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about -deloitte/articles/burnout-survey.html.
[iii] World Health Organization, “Burn-Out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases,” May 28, 2019, www.who.int/ mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/.
[iv] “Crisis within a Crisis: Mental Health Distress Rises Due to COVID-19.” International Committee of the Red Cross, www.icrc.org/en/document/crisis-mental-health-COVID-19. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
[v] Mercer,“2018GlobalTalentTrendsStudy,”www.fsgplus.com/fsgplus/news/ hr_insight/201805/P020180515513270762947.pdf.
[vi] “For CEOs, 2021 Is the Year of Hope.” Deloitte United States, 29 Jan. 2021, www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/chief-executive-officer/articles/ceo-survey-looking-ahead-post-pandemic.html.